WWF UK Blog  

What cotton is your T-shirt made of?

 
  • A farmer with his family rides a donkey cart, while going to the fields for cotton picking. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    A farmer with his family rides a donkey cart, while going to the fields for cotton picking. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

  • Gulam Ahmed, WWF-Pakistan, advises farmers on how to cultivate the most from their fields. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    Gulam Ahmed, WWF-Pakistan, advises farmers on how to cultivate the most from their fields. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

  • Matured cotton bolls await harvest. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    Matured cotton bolls await harvest. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

  • Arshia Khurshid, Senior Communications Officer, Switchasia Project. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    Arshia Khurshid, Senior Communications Officer, Switchasia Project. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

  • Shehar Bano, a female cotton picker, holds cotton after picking from the field. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    Shehar Bano, a female cotton picker, holds cotton after picking from the field. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

  • Female cotton pickers carry bundles of raw cotton. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    Female cotton pickers carry bundles of raw cotton. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

  • Muhammad Sajid, 22-year-old gin worker, poses for a photograph. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    Muhammad Sajid, 22-year-old gin worker, poses for a photograph. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

  • An employee shows yarn bobbins. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    An employee shows yarn bobbins. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

  • An employee adjusts empty pull bobbins into a rack. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

    An employee adjusts empty pull bobbins into a rack. © Asim Hafeez/WWF-UK

We’ve talked about knitting pandas on this blog, but now it’s time to turn our attention to cotton. I think I can be reasonably confident to assume that we all own something that’s made of cotton – perhaps you’re wearing a cotton T-shirt right now. It’s warm, it’s comfortable, and in fact cotton is one of the most important crops in the world. But have you ever wondered what it takes to grow enough cotton to make a single T-shirt and who’s involved along the journey from the farm until it reaches the shop shelf?

Cotton is a thirsty crop. It takes about 2,700 litres of water to produce one conventional cotton t-shirt: that’s equivalent to what an average person might drink over three years. Excessive amount of pesticides and chemical fertilisers are also often applied to these crops, having a damaging impact on the environment. These malpractices affect the health of the people too. Women in cotton-growing countries like India and Pakistan aren’t aware of the preventative measures to reduce the damage these chemicals can do to their health and to their children.
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) was founded by WWF and a number of like-minded retailers to improve the way cotton is grown and processed. BCI strives to mainstream ‘Better Cotton’ that is better for the environment it’s grown in, better for the health and prosperity of people who produce it, and better for the sector’s future. So soon we hope you will be able to pick up any cotton product in the shops at no extra cost, knowing that it is better for wildlife and the people.

Better Cotton doesn’t cost customers any more than conventional cotton. How do they do this? Because farmers experience a natural financial benefit by following the BCI recommendations. They are able to reduce the amount of pesticides they buy because by simply learning which insects are harmful and which aren’t, they avoid unnecessary spraying efforts. WWF-Pakistan has taught ginners how to improve energy efficiency of their machinery by replacing some of the old mechanical parts, which costs only a proportion of what they would be paying for in electricity bills otherwise. The financial gain also gives them the leeway to improve the conditions for their factory workers.

As the programme lead here at WWF-UK, I’ve learnt more and more about cotton. I work with retailers such as IKEA and Marks and Spencer, as well as the European Union, and my colleagues at WWF-India and WWF-Pakistan work with an array of stakeholders to ensure the Better Cotton supply. And that’s not as easy as it sounds. Convincing farmers to change their traditional cultivation methods, that have been passed on from generation to generation, requires more than a quick chat. But once they see the financial benefit as well as the health and environmental benefits, it’s a win-win situation and the word can spread.

We’ve followed various people along the journey of cotton from the buds in the fields in Pakistan to the ginners where the cotton lint is separated from the seed, through to the spinners where cotton is spun into yarn, right up until it reaches the retailers in Europe. In October 2013 we commissioned a photographer and film crew to capture some stunning video and photos of the people and their environment in which they work in. We’ve put together their stories to hear how BCI and WWF have helped them change the way they work with cotton, and ultimately how this has improved their lives whilst making cotton a more sustainable commodity.

Why not check out our Better Cotton report PDF (1MB)

Where do I buy Better Cotton?

You can check out which of your favourite retailers and brands have joined BCI by visiting the Better Cotton Initiative website.

So the next time you shop for a cotton product, think ‘Better Cotton’.

What do you think of the BCI? Leave us a comment on Mizuki’s blog.

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